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Vaccine mandate for domestic travellers set to come into effect by month’s end
Oct. 7, 2021

By month’s end, passengers on planes, trains and some marine vessels will have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to board, a move dubbed a “big step” towards a reopened Canada and a ticket out of pandemic cabin fever for many.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday detailed his government’s plan to require full vaccination against COVID-19 as a condition of travel, announcing that by Oct. 30, anyone eligible for a vaccine who is flying out of a Canadian airport or taking a Via Rail or Rocky Mountaineer train must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The new rules also apply to cruise ships, which are permitted to re-enter Canadian waters as of Nov. 1.

“If you haven’t gotten your shots yet but want to travel this winter, let’s be clear: there will only be a few extremely narrow exceptions, like a valid medical condition,” Trudeau said during a news conference. “For the vast, vast majority of people, the rules are very simple to travel. You’ve got to be vaccinated.”

The new vaccination requirement represents a major milestone on the road to “a post-pandemic Canada,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto -- a development that’s likely to reassure travellers and potentially boost vaccination rates.

“COVID is still going to be there, but this is a big step,” said Bogoch. “This will make for safer air travel, safer rail travel, safer cruising, and that’s great.”

Vivek Sharma, chair of the Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia, said his industry has been calling for fully vaccinated people to travel freely throughout Canada. Wednesday’s announcement is a vital part of establishing a “route that we know will allow our industry to start getting back on its feet.”

“It’s a big day,” Sharma said. “It’s not just a big day for the travel industry but for all of us, to be able to move freely, and prevent further lockdowns and the shutdown of the economy.”

The vaccine requirement detailed Wednesday also applies to employees in federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors, and anyone working in the restricted area of airports, including retail and hospitality employees.

Passengers embarking on trips must provide proof that they have received a full series or combination of COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized by Health Canada. The last dose must be obtained at least 14 days prior to travel.

Travellers in the process of getting fully vaccinated will be given a grace period: proof of a valid COVID-19 molecular test will be accepted until Nov. 30, at which point the vaccine mandate comes into full effect.

“By the end of November, if you’re 12 or older, and want to fly, or take the train, you’ll have to be fully vaccinated, as will staff,” Trudeau said during a news conference Wednesday. “Testing will no longer be an option before boarding.”

The testing option will only continue to be allowed in “extremely limited cases” involving emergency travel and exceptional medical circumstances, government officials said in a technical briefing for reporters Wednesday.

Ferries are excluded from the mandate, which primarily applies to voyages that last more than 24 hours. Exceptions will also be made for Indigenous communities who access essential services, such as medical care, through air travel.

The measures are intended to boost the overall vaccination rate in Canada, along with another vaccine mandate, also announced Wednesday, for federal public servants.

In a statement, the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest air carriers, said the country’s major airlines have already moved forward with mandatory vaccination policies for their employees.

“However, because consultations could not be held during the election campaign concerning mandatory vaccination requirements for air travellers, further to (Wednesday’s) announcement we are urgently looking forward to immediate engagement with officials on the implementation details and proposed regulations, including the responsibilities of government agencies,” President and CEO Mike McNaney said.

“Timelines are very tight to implement the travel rules. While we are committed to effective implementation it is imperative that the federal government quickly develop a standardized and digital proof of vaccination for air travel.”

The Trudeau government has promised to add “a federal element of certification” to vaccine certificates that would permit international travel, something Trudeau said would serve as an “interim measure” until a more centralized alternative is developed.

Bogoch said within Canada, the federal travel requirements will make for a more systemic approach rather than having individual airlines or companies making their own policies.

“There will be better coordination, the same rules will apply across the whole country -- it’s a smarter approach to have everyone play by the same rules,” he said.